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  • The Antecedents of Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom
  • David Schoenbrun
Vansina, Jan . 2004. The Antecedents of Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 354 pp. $65.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

What forces shaped the formation, expansion, and workings of the Nyiginya kingdom of Rwanda (c. 1650–1897)? What are the historical depths of categories, ideologies, and material contradictions that inflected the racialized violence in twentieth-century century Rwanda? Jan Vansina explores [End Page 146] these questions and others in The Antecedents of Modern Rwanda, his own translation from the French of his Le Rwanda ancien: Le royaume nyiginya (Paris: Karthala, 2001). As a sweeping, original revision of the dominant positions on these issues—an attempt "to present a starting point for thinking about Rwanda's past in the light of the present" (p. 196)—historians and students of contemporary central Africa cannot afford to ignore it.

Vansina lists his major revisionist accomplishments in the conclusion (pp. 196–197), and here and there in the main narrative (for example, pp. 134–149). The Nyiginya kingdom arose in the second half of the seventeenth century as a coalition between a newcomer (Ndori) and local "kings," a coalition in which secular and ritual power were separated in practice and joined only in the person of the new king. Ndori introduced the ubuhake contract, tying clients to patrons with clients "trading political submission for military protection" (p. 47) from their patron. Most importantly, Ndori developed numerous nonterritorial, permanent armies with a hereditary pool of combatants recruited from lineages dispersed across the country. Warriors and commanders, when they raided and made war, not only "produced" wealth in cattle, women, and children, they also tended their own herds and managed agricultural production on hills under their control. Their dispersal and entrenchment ensured that secession did not follow from structurally endemic successional crises. Instead, aristocrats competed over wealth, power, and prestige in an increasingly violent and ruthless court culture. Aristocrats pursued their interests free from concern with public welfare—which was, after all, the king's concern. This state of affairs led to a weakened kingship and "the triumph of the law of the strongest and its train of troubles, insecurity, and clamor for revenge" (p. 197). From the 1850s onward, aristocratic exploitation intensified, with a concomitant increase in aristocrats' scorn for and humiliation of the vulnerable and the weak: "Far from constituting an apotheosis of a great united nation encompassing almost two million people, the kingdom of Rwabugiri and his successors offered the spectacle of nearly two million people standing on the verge of an abyss" (p. 197).

This narrative refutes many long-standing positions on precolonial Rwandan history. The Nyiginya kingdom formed 300 to 350 years ago, at about the same time as other kingdoms in the region, and not in the mists of the remote past. There were no successive migrations of Twa foragers, Hutu farmers, and Tutsi herders. These categories grew slowly and labeled people already in Rwanda. The history of settlement in the area is ancient and complex. The "creator" Gihanga did not fall from heaven: he was created during Ndori's era as part of Ndori's base of ritual power (pp. 56–57). Nyiginya kings were not divine. Present-day Rwanda was not created by its first kings: it took shape after a long and fitful series of expansions, largely the result of aristocratic competitions. Therefore, one cannot speak about the kingdom as a carefully planned, rational state, run by autocratic or benevolent kings and their advisors. The linguistic and cultural unity one sees in Rwanda today is a product of the expansion of Nyiginya court [End Page 147] culture beginning after the 1850s, and in many ways is a product of colonial conquest and state-building. This thorough and convincing revision dispenses with other fictions near and dear to recent and contemporary students of Rwanda (pp. 198–199).

In chapters 2, 3, and 4, Vansina explains how, by the opening of the nineteenth century, demographic growth, agropastoral competitions, and an increasingly violent political culture drove king, combatants, and aristocrats into a centralized kingdom with a powerful court, numerous armies, and entrenched great families...


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